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AT THE MOVIES: ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is ‘unconventional’ at expense of female characters

After eight films and countless controversies, infamous cinema cognoscente Quentin Tarantino has released his ninth and second-to-last film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie, among others, this has been reveled as his “magnum opus” by Tarantino himself, and the picture had a successful festival premiere earlier this year. Screening in 35mm across the country, the highly glamorized look at LA in the ‘60s, that originally was going to be a book, is being distributed by Sony Pictures, a first for the filmmaker after a long-time partnership with Harvey Weinstein and The Weinstein Company. 

To properly try to explain the plot would be an absolute farce, as there is so much going on that I don’t think I could properly explain what’s truly going on without ruining some of the twists and turns Tarantino evokes the audience with. 

To make things simple, the plot revolves around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Pitt) — one an aging television actor, and the latter being his stunt double — as they aimlessly wander the streets of LA reflecting back on a time that once was in the Golden Age of Hollywood. All while the movie occasionally cuts in to show Sharon Tate’s (Robbie) daily happenings as a normal person. 

Tarantino’s films are easily some of the more challenging films to critique simply because they don’t follow most of the traditional act structures, character arcs, and directing formalities that films are “made” to follow (I say this with a grain of salt because smashing the mold is essential to some filmmakers). In the beginning, I found myself pondering how exactly I would approach this review, as there are certain things that Tarantino has said, done, and wrote into his other films that gross me out to a level of disgust so unbearable that I would love to just trash him, but I digress. 

The best way I can explain “Once Upon a Time” is that it is the ultimate masculine fantasy for fans of the culture of the ‘60s, and over-the-top action. In its slower moments, where it truly takes time to delve into our characters psyches, it’s brilliant. There’s a particular scene involving Rick reading a book on set and a little girl comforting him after getting emotional about the books content that truly feels like what Q.T. had originally planned on looking into before throwing in Manson, murder conspiracies, and hippies. Even watching Rick and Cliff commentate as the screen is filled with the beginning of an episode of “The F.B.I.,” Rick’s latest role, is engrossing in a peculiar sort of way. 


But, this all comes at the price of throwing in random, needless concepts and moments that exist only to throw the audience for a loop. Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Why exactly is Sharon Tate and the Manson Family even in this?” Not only for the fact that Tate is reduced to a barely speaking character whose thoughts are portrayed through a male voice-over, but also because it feels like yet another instance where the filmmaker adds in women only for them to be reduced to being subservient to the male characters. It portrays the women of the Family as scared teenagers, and then seconds later subjects them to highly stylized gruesome acts. 

Sure, the guy can direct a great action sequence, but it instantly becomes watered down to downright disturbing when you put heavy emphasis on the violence done by a man to the few women in the movie — including when it’s insinuated that one of the characters’ wives was so annoying that it was right for him to kill her. Or when the same guy jokes that he would have sex with a minor, as long as they don’t catch him. It’s a catch-22 for the viewer because it leaves it up to his or her own moral code to decide if he or she should root for him or not, and it seems that the majority seem to love this character.

My point is this: there is a difference between the audience being morally conflicted with a character’s actions (think Thanos in “Infinity War”) and them being down right manipulated to like them. It’s a hard sell for me, but only because I know that these issues are present in his other films, so I expected them going in. But, others won’t, and will gleefully fall for Brad Pitt as the likable, albeit flawed, attractive male character who may have done some violent things, but who cares? He’s the good guy. 

A once entertaining film (I say once, but I think I was entertained completely by about three scenes in the whole film) quickly becomes yet another vehicle for the director to be “unconventional” at the expense of his female characters. Even the ending — that is at first served as a laugh fest and is supposed to be a happy resolution — is actually just a cheapened rewriting of history that any other filmmaker would have been trashed for.


Jordan Lester is a movie reviewer and concert photographer. He lives in Dunn.


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